Review: Ego Po’s ‘A Dybbuk’ honors the story

Posted: June 03, 2012

The frightening Jewish folkloric notion of a malevolent "dybbuk" draws that name from the Hebrew word for attachment — which is exactly what a dybbuk is. It’s the lost soul of a dead person that for various reasons is doomed to wander and that can attach itself to a living person.

The classic drama The Dybbuk was written in Russian in 1917 by S. Ansky, and it has had its own transformations. A Dybbuk, a 1995 stage version by American playwright Tony Kushner, has never been produced professionally in Philadelphia until now.

It’s being done by Ego Po Classic Theater in a way that salutes the story — the production bows to the melodrama inherent in this tale (or any tale) of a dybbuk but also offers a sincere reflection on its place in Jewish culture.

No one flinches when a woman blurts in a gentle warning that the Torah is powerful because it is "made of black and of fire" or when a learned rabbi tells the dybbuk, "I will with my outstretched arm hurl anathema toward you." This is Ukraine, in a time of pogroms that killed Jews and destroyed villages, when people clung to folktales with one hand and to their demanding religious practice with the other.

Ego Po’s artistic director, Lane Savadove, directs A Dybbuk, the final show in the company’s season of Jewish-themed theater, on Matheus Fiuza’s set of several locations, draped on two sides with a handsome curtain of fabrics made to look like large prayer shawls. Kushner’s setup for the plot is a bit plodding — and Savadove’s unsteady timing in the early scenes doesn’t help, but when the play begins to swing quickly into different mood shifts and then into mysticism, the production gains steadily in intensity. Overall, A Dybbuk is a highly stylized form of entertainment with its super-faithful Yeshiva boys, its observant women, and its storybook Jewish sensibility.

Essentially, it’s a bizarre love story. A seemingly wayward Yeshiva student (Robert DaPonte) is overtaken by his longing for the daughter of a rich and learned man (Brian McCann). But the student dies, and his soul invades her body as she is about to marry another.

The second act is The Exorcist kosher-style, set in the home of a rabbi (David Blatt, in a thoughtful performance) who must rid the bride of her dybbuk. This half is pure Kushner — lyrical and fierce, emotional and with an intense mysticism; in odd but clear ways, A Dybbuk mirrors his triumphant two-play Angels in America, whose first part unfolds a few blocks away at the Wilma Theater.

The bride in A Dybbuk is played by Rachel Kitson, who at one point shakes and shimmies and does everything but turn her head 360 degrees — and she convinced me that she would if she could. She speaks both in her character and as DaPonte’s dybbuk, giving those lines in tandem – a rich and eerie effect.

One of the most impressive stars of the show is costume designer Katherine Fritz, who dresses 10 cast members in the roles of about 40. The other is Ed Swidey, who plays a messenger — though for most of the plot we’re not sure for whom his message is intended. In a play about souls, Swidey’s character ends up as the soul of the play, and in his forceful performance of a man we can’t figure out, Swidey himself is the soul of the cast.

Contact Howard Shapiro at 215-854-5727, hshapiro@phillynews.com, or follow #philastage on Twitter.


A Dybbuk

Presented by Ego Po Classic Theater at Prince Music Theater, 1412 Chestnut St., through June 17. Tickets: $20-$50. Information: 1-800-595-4849 or www.egopo.org.

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